This afternoon, Rachel Zimmerman Brachman was honoured with The Women in Film and Television Showcase 2011 Visionary Award at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox - for the project that won her a silver medal at the 1985 Canada-Wide Science Fair (CWSF).
The project - The Blissymbol Printer - was a revolutionary computer application, combined with a converted graphics tablet (pictured above left), which enabled severely disabled non-speaking people to communicate. Zimmerman Brachman developed the project as a 12 year-old grade 7 student at St. George's Public School in London, Ontario after reading about the Bliss symbol picture language.
Although she recognized the system of symbols as a breakthrough, she could also see its limits, as those using the symbols could only communicate with people who were right next to them. Using her home computer she developed a software program to display English text for the symbols tapped on her touch-sensitive Bliss board.
"I only intended it to be my Grade 7 science project," said Zimmerman Brachman, now 39. The project won first place in the London District regional science fair, a silver medal at the 1985 CWSF in Cornwall, Ontario, and was showcased in Bulgaria at the World Exhibition of Achievement of Young Inventors.
After achieving a BA in physics from Brandeis University in 1995, she returned home to work on a master's degree in astronomy at the University of Western Ontario. But two months into the program, she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle and had to drop out of the program. She eventually ended up in France, where she earned a Master of Space Studies degree, cum laude, from the International Space University in Strasbourg.
Rachel's work has been published in The Planetary Report, the Journal of the National Space Society, and NASA's Ames Research Center Astrogram, among others. For outstanding performance and leadership in the field of space exploration, she has received numerous NASA/JPL awards, as well as many national and international awards for her work in science and technology.
For nearly eight years, Zimmerman Brachman has worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California as Solar System and Technology Education and Public Outreach Specialist on topics such as NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn, which has been orbiting the planet since 2004. "It's fun. It brings science alive for a lot of kids. It's nice to show kids that scientists are interesting people who are still around and doing interesting things," she said.